Late night on Thursday the 27th of January 2011, I called my wife who was attending a conference in Cairo. I had a brief moment of panic when a man answered in a rough Egyptian tone “what do you want?”. Eventually I was able to talk to her and she mentioned that telephone communications are not going through and that from where she is staying, at the Shepherd hotel nearby Tahrir square, she saw masses of people flowing in and that she was able to hear a large group of them chanting “Tunis is the Answer”.
On December 17, 2100, Tunisian young university graduate, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire after police confiscated his unlicensed vegetable cart. He died 18 days later, but his death ignited what later became known as Tunisia’s revolution leading to the ousting of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Egypt President Husni Mubarak stepped down on 1 February 2011 in response to millions marching on streets of Egypt asking him to leave. In other Arab countries, masses took the streets in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen and in less numbers in other countries on the hope that they change the way their societies are being run.
Four years ago, seeking dignity and liberty marked the discourse in which people of this region regarded the massive popular movement in their countries. This was a moment in time when people collectively engaged in dismissing an inherently long history of inequality, deprivation, oppression and injustice. “Tunis is the Answer” for that crowd on Tahrir outskirts in January 2011 meant restoring the value of being a human in an semi-continent run for almost 30 years as a private property of one person and family. In Bahrain, it meant a determined well to reject inequality and discrimination, forever. In Syria, when peaceful demonstrators handed flowers to security forces on Damascus streets, not knowing they will shoot them later, the case was made- that no more silence and no more living in fear.
Promises were plenty: we can and will live in societies where each one of us will have her and his voice heard and not forced to silence, persecuted or punished for speaking critical opinions of the government, the leader, security agencies or corruption; that each one of us will have freedom to choice and that we can be anything we want to be; that we can have the power to change things in our lives; that we can belong and associate to the extent that we seek- and that we can aspire to a prosperous future for our children without fear of corruption.
Factually, all of these promises seem to be gone. We are not free as we thought would be, and in fact in some countries freedoms declined to a point below what it used to be before the pan-Arab popular mobilization. I look at young activists who led some of the critical mobilization during Egypt’s revolution, and I see most of them harassed, imprisoned and even have fled the country for fear of new government reprisal. Deadly human cost of change in Syria is unprecedented, while some of the horrific crimes committed by the government as well as warring parties goes beyond imagination.
But we learned that dynamics can change, and albeit current decline, there may be another momentum for that kindling moment of Bouazizi. One dear activist and champion of rights in Bahrain, Nabeel Rajab, keeps saying “Somood” which means resilience (he was jailed twice for only tweeting opinions)- and there is every reason to hold on to that promise of Somood